On the heels of their hugely successful celebration of the musicals of Stephen Sondheim, Kennedy Center officials announced plans yesterday for an elaborate series of productions by another titan of the American theater: Tennessee Williams.
"Tennessee Williams Explored," a 10-week program next year that will feature new stagings of "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "The Glass Menagerie," is one of the central initiatives of the center's 2003-04 season, a varied roster of theater, dance, classical music, jazz and opera productions that Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser described as one of the most ambitious in the institution's history.
Along with the Williams retrospective, Kaiser unveiled a lineup for the coming season that includes two other large-scale festivals, one built around French culture, the other a commemoration of the work of Russian composer Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. The center will also play host to the New York City Ballet for the first time since 1987, will welcome the highly sought-after soprano Renee Fleming for an intensive week of performances and master classes, and enlist as guest performers with the National Symphony Orchestra such luminaries as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, conductors Lorin Maazel, Kent Nagano, Mstislav Rostropovich and Valery Gergiev, opera star Jessye Norman and violinist Itzhak Perlman.
The Eisenhower Theater will also be the venue for a pre-Broadway run of Sondheim's "Bounce," a show, originally titled "Wise Guys," that was commissioned by the Kennedy Center in 1995 and deleted from its schedule four years later. It is the first new Sondheim musical to try out there since "Pacific Overtures" nearly three decades ago.
"What I'm so pleased about this year is not volume but quality level," Kaiser said in an interview before unveiling the season in a presentation in the Terrace Theater. Noting the great amount of programming that involves cross-fertilization among disciplines, such as a festival honoring the culture of Puerto Rico, he added, "I believe that the role of an institution like ours is to present great stuff, but also to curate great stuff."
The calendar will be filled with noteworthy arrivals, from the Washington debuts of the experimental theater director Robert Lepage (the performance piece "La Casa Azul" in October) and the provocative Ballett Frankfurt (June 2004) to the May 2004 launch of the Conservatory Project, in which music students from eight major American conservatories will be invited to the center to showcase their talents. Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen will star in a new children's play. The Kirov Ballet will perform "The Nutcracker" and "Swan Lake" next December and early January in the first booking for the Opera House after its refurbishment; jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater will sing as part of the Festival of France; and, in partnership with the Washington Performing Arts Society, the Kennedy Center will hold two one-night-only events, the first featuring the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Simon Rattle (Nov. 17), and the second with soprano Cecilia Bartoli and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (spring 2004).
Clearly, one of the most talked-about components of the season will be the cycle of Williams plays. The festival will not only revive three of the dramatist's best-known full-length works but also offer world premieres of three recently discovered one-acts, in an evening of five Williams playlets called "Five by Tenn" that will be directed by Michael Kahn, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre.
The spotlighting of Williams seems a fitting follow-up to last summer's $10 million Sondheim Celebration, a project that marked the Kennedy Center's return to the producing of theater after years of merely serving as a house for touring shows. The latter tradition will remain in effect as well: The national tour of "The Producers" is to take up a two-month residence in the Opera House in the summer of 2004, and the Royal Shakespeare Company will return this December with "The Taming of the Shrew" and John Fletcher's "The Tamer Tamed," a kind of Jacobean sequel to "Shrew." (Meanwhile, Trevor Nunn's production of "Oklahoma!," long scheduled to play the Eisenhower this summer, has been canceled, and the center is trying to find something to replace it.)
The Williams effort is both tantalizing and, in a sense, high-risk. The three plays selected, among the most frequently performed in the Williams canon, could envelop the entire enterprise in an aura of tameness if the stagings are overly cautious. Casting presents a daunting challenge; unlike the Sondheim summer, in which the shows themselves were the real stars, these widely celebrated masterpieces will require truly high-wattage talent. There are mammoth roles in each, and all have been associated with world-class actors who have left indelible impressions. And as Kaiser acknowledged, there is the additional pressure of at least living up to, if not topping, the expectations raised by the Sondheim venture.
"Tennessee Williams Explored," spanning (with some gaps) the period of April 20, 2004, when the five one-acts open, to July 25, when "Menagerie" closes, will be produced at a cost of about $6 million, officials said. In addition to the plays, actor Richard Thomas will perform a one-man show, "Letters From Tennessee: A Distant Country Called Youth," based on the playwright's correspondence with a variety of friends and associates. The center, still in the process of hiring directors for the full-length plays, is setting its sights on artists with national and international reputations, officials said.
Theater, of course, is only a fragment of the season's picture. The Kennedy Center's dance card is packed, its most notable addition being the March 2004 appearance of the New York City Ballet after a 17-year absence. The troupe's return, Kaiser explained, was made possible by the resolution of a long contract dispute over which musicians could play in the Opera House. An agreement was reached, he said, under which the Kennedy Center's ballet orchestra will perform for this first engagement and alternate with the City Ballet Orchestra in subsequent visits. For its reintroduction to Washington audiences, the NYCB is to perform a program of George Balanchine standards, including "Serenade" and "Apollo," to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Balanchine's birth.
Among the major European companies paying visits will be the Royal Danish Ballet next January and the Hamburg Ballet the following month.
The culture of one European country in particular will be omnipresent in the early months of 2004 when the multifaceted Festival of France sets up shop, encompassing everything from French cinema to chamber music. The timing is intriguing, given the tension between the United States and France over military intervention in Iraq. But Kaiser said geopolitics would not hold sway over the center's programs. "We believe art unites people," he said.
Fleming will lend her voice to the Gallic festivities, appearing with the National Symphony Orchestra for two evenings of Ravel, Debussy, Boulez and Lalo, and giving four master classes and a recital of French songs. The festival's participating groups range from Opera Comique-Theatre Musical Populaire performing "La Vie Parisienne" to the avant-garde Theatre de l'Atelier assaying "Les Braises," an adaptation of "Embers," by Hungarian novelist Sandor Marai.
The NSO, of course, will also be involved in December's Tchaikovsky Festival, held in honor of the this year's 300th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg. The events will kick off Dec. 3 with an all-Tchaikovsky program conducted by NSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin; it will feature Ma, pianist Yefim Bronfman and violinist Gil Shaham.
The NSO promises an unusually stellar season, from the opening-night gala with Norman (in her first visit since 1986) through guest-conducting appearances by Maazel, Nagano, Gergiev, James Conlon, David Robertson and, for the second straight year, conductor laureate Rostropovich. Other soloists will include violinist Maxim Vengerov, baritones Thomas Hampson and Matthias Goerne, pianists Lang Lang, Emanuel Ax, Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the duo-piano team of Katia and Marielle Labeque.
To Slatkin, the depth of the season is a reflection of the orchestra's growing maturity. "There is no question that the level of conductors has been substantially upgraded," he said yesterday from London. "As the orchestra continues to evolve, more baton-wielders are becoming interested in leading the orchestra."
Not everything in the new season will aspire to this level of artistic rigor. In September, for instance, patrons will be able to settle into a seat in the Eisenhower Theater and belt out "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead!" That's right: The "Sing-a-Long Wizard of Oz" is coming to an august arts emporium near you.
Staff writers Tim Page and Sarah Kaufman contributed to this report.